The Song of the Cities

(notes by Simon Machin)


First published in May 1893 in English Illustrated Magazine, as one of the six poems which form “A Song of the English” (ORG 564-565). Probably written for the opening of the Imperial Institute, Kensington, London, Listed in ORG as Nos. 570-584.

Collected in:

  • The Seven Seas (1896)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxiii (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxvi (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Thomas Pinney, p. 326.

The poem

“The Song of the Cities” was probably completed after August 1892 when Kipling and his newly married wife Carrie had settled in Vermont, in New England. It was then collected in The Seven Seas, published in New York and London on 30 October 1896, by which time Kipling had returned – unexpectedly – to live in England, which was to be his permanent home. Thus, the circumstances of publication dramatize Kipling’s personal conflicts in his attitude towards the motherland, feelings of homesickness for New England – though he had never been entirely at ease in America – and a changing view of the relationship between Britain and its dominions.

The poem celebrates the great cities of the Empire, the language and trade links between Britain and its overseas territoties dependent upon historic control of the oceans. As Harry Ricketts notes in his essay, ‘“Nine and Sixty Ways”: Kipling, a ventriloquist poet’:

‘The Song of the Cities’ represents “a fifteen-quatrain round trip of the British Empire from Bombay to Auckland”
[Cambridge Companion to Kipling, 2011, p. 116].

Before his marriage in 1892, Kipling had embarked on a world tour, taking in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, before returning to India (for the last time) where he visited his birthplace, Bombay. On his honeymoon, he took in Canada, before travelling on to settle in New England. So, the poem is not an abstract reflection upon Empire, but is based in part on personal knowledge, and a developing vision. By the time of its collection in The Seven Seas, he had added stanzas for Halifax and Brisbane, and substituted a new stanza for Quebec and Montreal to replace an earlier one for Quebec.


Daniel Karlin observes:

Questions of ‘Englishness’ and national identity feature strongly in late 19th century culture, and Kipling’s literary and personal friendships (notably W.E. Henley’s circle) would have encouraged his contributions to this debate”.
(p. 663).

This was a time when Kipling was becoming more overtly political in his poetical themes. It was also a time when the idea of an imperial federation was being seriously mooted. The historian, Lawrence James, in The Rise & Fall of the British Empire (Little, Brown 1999) quotes a speech by a Dr Parkin of Nova Scotia, which foretells that:

… one day, “Nelson’s signal England expects that every man will do his duty will be flashed, not along a line of ships, but along a line of embattled nations around the world”
(p. 314).

The rhetoric of signals or telegraphy across the oceans uniting the Anglophone imperial countries in mutual defence is explored in one of the other linked poems, “The Deep-Sea Cables”.
The Seven Seas are the North and South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific, the Arctic and Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean. The first of Kipling’s cities are all in India, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, but he then widens his vision across the world, thousands of miles to the East and the West.
David Gilmour (p. 108) suggests that Kipling:

… had not exhausted his interest in India and the British Army: a third of the book is devoted to another series of ‘barrack room ballads’ … But by consigning the ballads to the end of the book, Kipling accentuated a change of emphasis. Mulvaney was giving way to McAndrew. The barracks were ceding priority to the shipyards. India as the focus of his imperialism was losing out to an older vision of empire, expansion by sea and by ruling the waves.

See also Jan Montefiore’s essay on on “Kipling and The Seven Seas in which she traces the formal influence of the public poetry of Swinburne, in particular his “Songs before Sunrise”, on Kipling’s “Song of the Cities” and relates “A Song of the English” to his evolving view of the Brirish empire.


Notes on the Text

[BOMBAY] Now Mumbai.

Dower-royal: as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, control of Bombay passed from Portugal to England, under Charles II in 1661, and was then leased to the British East India Company in 1668.

mills: cotton mills. From the 1880s a major cotton industry grew up in Bombay, rivalling the mills of Lancashire in Northern England.

[CALCUTTA] Now Kolkata

the Sea-captain: Until the landmark Calcutta High Court ruling of 2003 removed his name from official records, Job Charnock, an East India Company administrator, had traditionally been regarded as the founder of Calcutta on the river Hooghly in 1687.

[MADRAS] Now Chennai

Clive: Sir Robert Clive (1725-74), was popularly known as ‘Clive of India’. In 1748 he distinguished himself in fighting the French at the siege of Pondicherry, after which the British held Madras and dominated Southern India. In the late 1750s he established the authority of the British East India Company in Bengal, the richest state in India.




[RANGOON] Now Yangon.

Shwe Dagon: the Shwe Dagon pagoda, a sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar (formerly Burma).




Danial Hadas notes: The “second doorway” is the Strait of Malacca. I would guess the first doorway is Gibraltar.[D.H.]



Praya: The praya (meaning ‘beach’ in Portuguese) in Hong-Kong was the long broad road running alongside the harbour waterfront.


a whisper rose: Strained relations between Britain and the USA in the 1890s over the borders between British Guiana and Venezuela had raised similar territorial questions about Canada and Alaska.

In the 18th Century Britain and France, rival powers, had fought for control of what is now Canada. Quebec was and remains a French-speaking province,.


Daniel Hadas suggests:   My best guess is that the Victoria in question is Victoria, British Columbia. Kipling had been there, and that fits an East to West Canadian sequence. On the other hand, “landlocked” is an odd description for a shore-side city on Vancouver Island. Lines 1 and 2 are also rather hard. Kipling seems to mean that Victoria (BC) is the Western-most point of the Empire, so that, if you continue going West after that, you get to Asia, which is of course thought of as in the East, relative to England. [D.H.]



Lion’s Head: a mountain rising dramatically above the city of Cape Town.


My birth-stain: Sydney was founded as a penal colony.


Suffer a little: Brisbane had suffered a serious fire in 1864 and extensive flooding in 1893.


Man’s love: The Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman, who sighted Tasmania (originally Van Diemen’s Land) in 1642, was once thought to have been motivated to undertake the voyage because he was in love with one of the daughters of Anthony van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies.

Man’s hate: Established as a penal colony, Tasmania saw violent conflict between its white settlers and the indigenous people, who were exterminated. The penal colony was exceptionally brutal, even by 18th Century standards.

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